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A Letter from the Lion of Fallujah to the children of a Fallen Friend

The AP on 'Just War'

Apparently the meeting between President Bush and the Pope did not produce a discussion of "Just War." 

The president said their was no discussion of "just war," a Christian doctrine that says war must have a reasonable chance of success of not doing more harm than good. According to the doctrine, war must be a last resort, launched in response to unjust aggression and civilians must be safeguarded.

That sounds like the AP reporting on a "gotcha" question, rather than something the President said off the top of his head.  And yes, it proves to be.

Q Thank you, sir. Can you talk about your conversation with Pope Benedict earlier? Did you have a fundamental disagreement over whether Iraq was a just war?

In a way, it's a shame they didn't have the discussion, because it's an interesting question.  The AP blurb on "just war" suggests that it is a simple doctrine, when in fact it is a hugely complex one -- as you would expect of a philosophical position developed over several hundred years.

For example, leftist professor Michael Walzer wrote (on p. 101 of the Second edition of Just and Unjust Wars, his famous work on the subject) of the case for humanitarian intervention.  Consider how much different the AP's blurb would look if it had described a "just war" in this way:

If the dominant forces within a state are engaged in massive violations of human rights, the appeal to self-determination in the Millian sense of self-help is not very attractive.  [GRIM:  What is meant here is that a nation-state is normally supposed to be the self-expression of a national will.  As a result, members of that nation can justly overthrow their own government either politically or otherwise.  Members of other nations normally ought to respect the national will of their neighbors.  Walzer is here describing one of the exceptions to "normally ought."] 

That appeal [to self-help] has to do with the freedom of the community taken as a whole; it has no force when what is at stake is the bare survival or the minimal liberty of (some substantial number of) its members.  Against the enslavement or massacre of political opponents, national minorities, and religious sects, there may well be no help unless help comes from outside.  And when a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the idea of self-determination might apply.

From pages 107-8:

Humanitarian intervention is justified when it is a response (with reasonable expectations of success) to acts "that shock the moral conscience of mankind."  The old fashioned language seems to me exactly right.  It is not the conscience of political leaders that one refers to in such cases.... Any state capable of stopping the slaughter has a right, at least, to try to do so.

The Pope is a humane leader who has no cause to love war, and a particular duty to advocate for peace.  Nevertheless, Iraq seems to me to have been from the outset a just war -- if it were otherwise, I would never have supported it.

UPDATE:  A reader requests an elaboration of the argument.  After the jump, a full explanation of why I think the war was legitimate under Just War theory.

First of all, let's make clear that I am going to argue that Iraq is a "Just War," that is, that it is justified by the principles of Just War theory. Out of fairness, since I started with Walzer's book, I'll stick with it as the authority on the question. I like Walzer's formula, even though it is somewhat controversial among military men, because it is rooted in the Left's tradition as much as it is in the traditional, Catholic-based tradition. As a result, it ought to be something that we can broadly agree to respect as a guiding principle (leaving aside, of course, Quakers and others genuinely opposed to the use of violence -- whom I respect for their principles, but with whom I obviously differ).

I'll also note that I am not aware of what, if anything, Walzer has said about the current war; but I think that may be an advantage. In his book, we have a pre-war statement of principles, one that was not written to attack or support the particular policy of the day. As a result, we have first principles from which we can reason cleanly, rather than principles that may have been swayed by the attempt to justify the act.

Just War theory splits, right up front, into two separate fields: Justice in beginning a war (Jus ad bellum) and the just way to wage war (jus in bello). We're really talking about the first of those two here -- the question of whether or not it was just to invade Iraq and replace its government.

In order to answer the question of when war between nations is appropriate, Walzer looks at what a nation state is "for." He says that the state is designed to protect the rights of political communities. (This argument begins on p. 53, if you're using the 2nd Edition, which is the one I have on hand). "The rights of states rest on the consent of their members," he notes (p. 54). "Over a long period of time, shared experiences and cooperative activity of many different kinds shape a common life." This common life -- "culture" would be a good word for it -- consists of a lot of things. It consists of shared values, and an idea of right and wrong; ideas about how the government should function (for example, see our post a few posts down how the Iraqi judicial system was arising not from the US teachers, but from Iraqi notions of what a justice system should be, including Continental-style investigative judges); and a narrative history that the people recognize as their own.

This is the thing that the whole idea of sovereign states is set up to protect. It rises out of European history, is the reason that a people who think of themselves as "Scots" have a right to govern themselves according to "Scottish" notions that are different from "English" or "French" ones. The system is basically good, because it protects peoples' freedom to live according to their common will, and therefore to be happy in this world.

The AP is right to say that the Just War tradition says a great deal against aggression, which Walzer describes as a crime. The reason it is a crime, however, is that it is the suppression of one nation's natural right to govern itself and make its own choices by another. Such a suppression can normally never be justified, except in self defense -- that is, it is still not justified, since the other nation was actually the aggressor.

It is here that we return to the two quotes from the original blog post above, in which Walzer is describing one of several exceptions to this general rule.

As Walzer notes, a state that is sufficiently brutal has -no claim- to legitimacy under this understanding of what nations are, and are for. It is possible, of course, that a minority in a state will not be happy with the state -- but that is not usually the business of other states. The minority is meant to work for change in their own nation, through politics or even through violence, as a means of 'self help.'

There can be a case, however, in which the suppression of any sort of political opposition is so thorough and brutal that there is no hope of self-help. Iraq under Saddam seems to be a clear example of that sort of state. Saddam's brutality does not need to be rehashed here; but his deliberate destruction of existing political structures through which people could express differences was thorough, brutal, and indeed of the sort that "shocks" human conscience. Two examples will serve: the infamous meat grinders large enough to fit people; and the introduction of rape rooms, whereby innocent female relatives would be raped in order to compel cooperation or punish dissent among dissidents.

Under those circumstances, what is supposedly a "nation state" on the surface is in fact an abomination. The purpose of a nation is to protect the contract of a people; instead, this sort of state exists to violently suppress it. It does not protect the culture or the people, but destroys both; and, using the mechanisms of state power, prevents change from within.

That is a threat not only to the people so suppressed, but to the integrity of our entire international system. Every international "law" is really a treaty: treaties between governments. Governments get their power based on the consent (in Walzer's sense of the term, p. 53-4 again) of the governed. Thus, a government that is hollow -- that has no consent, but is instead smashing all opposition -- can enter no treaty; it can join no law. It is not legitimate; it is not recognized.

More, it is denying its people what both Walzer and the international system recognize as their most basic human right: the right to be participants in a nation that protects them. And it violates their every other human right as well, in a fashion that shocks and horrifies.

Therefore, Walzer concludes, a nation that can stop this -- one that has a reasonable chance of helping them form a new state, based on the consent of the governed -- has "a right, at least, to try." A right, at least -- perhaps a duty.

We had a reasonable chance of success -- I think we still have a reasonable chance of success, and in fact I think we will succeed if we commit ourselves to following through no matter what. If we do that, I firmly believe, we cannot fail.

Therefore, America had a right to try. We can debate separately whether or not we had a duty; but we surely had a right.